Action Teaching

January 31, 2010

Since being introduced to the term by my new IT gurus I’ve been mulling over the whole “action teaching” concept. Although the term is attributed to Professor Scott Prous in 2000 (Azar, 2008), I’ve found reference to it in 1997. I’ve been surprised by how little direct scholarly work there seems to be on the topic. There is a dearth of articles that use this term. There are, however, some good writings that appear to delve into the practice of action teaching, such as those listed on Prous’ page on the Social Psychology Network site. (Unsurprisingly there appear to be quite a few references to it in the Christian educative literature. And, more bizarrely, in Homes Economics journals! So if anyone spots any really good theoretical articles on the subject I’d welcome them.) The literature seems to capture many of the dilemmas of trying to be an active teacher and to use participative student-centred methods. Cadman and Grey (2000) capture the dilemma concisely when they say,

We can find ourselves wanting to develop a more learner-centred curriculum yet in practice we often continue to control our classrooms and direct students’ learning. We get caught between wanting to help students to work confidently as independent, autonomous learners, and fearing to relinquish control over the curriculum in case vital…skills are neglected (p. 21).

When I first starting to read about action teaching I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about.  Plous says that action teaching is about turning learning into a live experience through field work, classroom activities and other assignments. Yet over sixty years ago Kurt Lewin was advocating that it wasn’t enough to study issues academically and that research should lead to social action. And certainly many of the class room activities I’ve read about which apparently constitute action teaching are no more than what I would consider good teaching practice. I confess to at first agreeing with Reg Revans’ (1997) assessment. He says,

Certainly, I for one am often confused by reading of some development that is what I would have called pure Action Learning, but that is described by some other name, such as’ activity learning’, or ‘action teaching’, or ‘participative management’, or ‘management action teamwork (p. 13).

 However as I was reading some of the articles I realised that there is a second layer of thinking which is most important and warrants closer examination. Prouse argues that the learning experience should lead to not only a better understanding of the subject area – in his case psychology – but to a more just, compassionate and peaceful world.

 Now it’s starting to become a little clearer. There are strong links to community development – and particularly Friere’s liberation pedagogy in particular. Action teaching seems to be not just about action and ‘doing’ and reflecting – but about doing this in ways that promote humanity. There’s a rich (if somewhat overwhelming) example by David Sattler who was keen to understand the role of psychology in natural disaster responses. In 2004 following the Indian Ocean tsunami, he and his students planned a series of events. Student travelled to Thailand, negotiated space with a local business owner and set up a museum which had attracted 3000 visitors by 2006 (Sattler, 2007). The money raised through donations purchased mosquito netting and a year of safe drinking water. According to Sattler, “Students said that participating created interest and enthusiasm in research, promoted a sense of social responsibility, and for some, remains a highlight of their life” (APA Convention Blog, 2009).

 I admit my first response was “What? I can’t even afford to go to Thailand – let alone take my students!” but as I let go of ego, this kind of teaching becomes very inspiring. It really challenges me as a teacher to think about whether my teaching is coherent with the aspirations I have. In the past I have tried to do more meaningful and engaged teaching activities within the community and seem to always get caught up in the institutional net of ethics applications and having to justify my approach. (Bizarrely we’re only too happy to kill off mice and frogs in the name of knowledge, but struggle with the ethical implications of compassion and local social change!) So I was pleased to read Tony Hoffman’s observation that, ‘Action teaching can expose instructors to accusations of proselytizing…so they need to be prepared to defend their projects with campus staff, deans, facility personnel, and the students themselves’ (p. 58). It’s nice to know I’m not alone!

 The irony of course is that all of what we teach is value laden: the science we teach, our take on what makes “good” literature, the fact that we elevate economics and business to a degree – these are all value decisions and one could argue that these too constitute conversion efforts. I recall only too well my studies in psychology and the fervour of my tutors in adhering to the experimental method! We like to pretend that because this occurs in the safety of a classroom there are no risks. We can separate our teaching from the eventual behaviour of our students and lessen our – or the institutions’ – responsibility. Whereas action teaching brings that chain of events much closer in time: from years to weeks! The risks are more real. The line of responsibility is much more overt. And so too are the values embedded in the curriculum. The fallibility of the teacher is also more apparent. But if that means the opportunity to explicitly negotiate these issues with students and the development of a more honest relationship, as well as more engaged and humane learning and the opportunity for real change through the learning process, then that seems like a risk that is worth taking.


Azar, B. (2008). Brining lessons to life. Monitor of Psychology, December, 56-58.

Cadman, K., & Grey, M. (2000). The ‘Action Teaching’ model of curriculum design : EAP students managing their own learning in an academic conference course. EA Journal, 17(2), pp. 21-36.

No authorship indicated. (2009). Award winning example of teaching. APA Convention Blog. Retrieved from:

Revans, R. (1997). Action learning: Its origins and nature. In M. Pedlar (Ed.) Action Learning In Practice (3rd Ed.) (pp. 3-14). Hampshire: Gower.

Sattler, D. N. (2007).Creating the International Tsunami Museum in Khao Lak. Retrieved from:


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